Sunday, 27 April 2014

the diminutive guardian of the highlands

A positive man by nature, George Hendry concludes 'Midges in Scotland' with the thought that Culcoides impunctatus does more than Scottish Natural Heritage and all the other conservation bodies put together to keep the West Highlands free of human development.
Let us look at it, says George, as 'a diminutive guardian of the Highlands'.
- from Roger Hutchinson's review of George Hendry's Midges in Scotland, WHFP, 18 April 2014

Thursday, 24 April 2014

the younger generation

The three of us, thinking of things we could do for my birthday.

Me: We could go to a folk gig.
Cherub: No.
Bethan: Aw, it's your dad's birthday.
Cherub: It's my childhood.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Last Saturday we all went to the cheap morning showing of Frozen at the Odeon Surrey Quays. I was probably keenest to see it, actually, as it had had such good reviews, and people seemed to go to see it more than once (including to singalong showings - the people behind us were singing along at some points), but we were all pretty underwhelmed. I thought it was very slow getting going, opening with two or three very 'stage musical' songs; the songs were all of that kind, which I don't like at all, and I felt very much that the film had been written with turning it into a stage musical in mind, and it was all the worse for it; the plot was pretty sketchy; the funny snowman sidekick seemed quite out of place, and his much-vaunted humorous song was a one-liner stretched out unimaginatively ('I want to do what frozen things do in summer...'). I don't know why it's been so enormously successful; it didn't charm our family.


We finished watching Hairspray - the John Travolta film version of the musical remake of the original John Waters film - on Wednesday. We all started watching it, but Bethan baled out after the first session, finding it boring, all that singing and dancing; we liked it a lot, however, all that singing and dancing. Set in 1962, the songs were proper songs in the style of the period; plus a good story and well acted.

the lewis man

I read the second of Peter May's Lewis-set detective stories, The Lewis Man, and disliked it as much as the first one. Terrible rubbish. Full of cliches in language and plot. Every researched fact and geographical detail on tedious show-your-workings display. Everything but the kitchen sink plot themes, and preposterous plot points - the idea that the family background of someone from the island, alive during the book's story, could be mysterious/unknown/fabricated, is just implausible (even if he was from Harris and living in Ness...); even I know that feannagan are lazy beds, and you did get them in Lewis; road trips and journeys made to find things out that could have been simply ascertained by a couple of phone calls and a working internet connection; local police doing no work on a murder investigation (which, incidentally, seems to cause no stir in the islands whatsoever) but happy to pass info to someone to do their own private investigating; not looking through papers in the house until near the end (which again would have made the story considerably shorter); choosing to go to a gangster just to find out the real surname of the dementia sufferer who the gangster would surely hold partly responsible for the gangster's brother's death (no, don't see any possible repercussions there...).

The relentless negative depiction of anyone religious and religious culture in general (although of course some Southern Isles Catholics are allowed to be jolly, despite their awful religion, by way of traditional caricature contrast to the northern Presbyterians) is tedious as well as annoying. And, of course, not reflective of real life: I don't care who you are, I don't believe you could grow up in Lewis and not know Christians you liked, loved, respected or who made you laugh (in a good way), however profoundly wrong you thought they were or however horrible you thought some of their fellow Christians were. (And he manages to get in two horrible childhood experiences at the hands of religious institutions, one Protestant and one Catholic; I couldn't believe he was going for the double, but he did; hilarious.) When he does 'humanise' the horrible minister, it's by 'managing to get down to the non-Christian he once was beneath the Christian he became'.

And as for the decision to have some of the chapters done in first-person narration by a character suffering from severe dementia but whose internal monologue is lucid, structured, memory-perfect, eloquent, it simply beggars belief.

I will of course read the third one in due course (in fact I noticed it in the library and picked it up, so might be sooner than I thought). They don't take long, at least. I'll be glad when it's done. I read somewhere recently they're thinking of making them into tv drama; my heart sank.

I'm glad I don't feel the same need to read books set where I live now; there are quite a few more of those.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

my little fashion blog

I don't know who retweeted it so that it popped up in my timeline, but I've discovered My Little Fashion Blog's Twitter feed. I'm not interested in the website, nor most of the tweets, but there is one subset of tweets which I find fascinating: the ones which post side-by-side images of a garment being worn by a model on catwalk/fashion-shoot and the same garment being worn by a famous woman in real life, usually on a red carpet.

I don't think the blogger is making any point with these tweets, but they make me think. Of course, how the models almost never smile and the famous women almost always do. But also, how often the clothes are not worn as they were intended to be worn (not in the same combinations/ensembles, and also not in the same arrangement of an individual item). The model is so rarely the same shape as the woman wearing the clothes in real life. You really do wonder why people design clothes to be modelled in a way they will so rarely look in real life - especially as the shape of the models so often don't actually help to make the clothes look good. You wonder if the designers plan into their design of each outfit a range of sets of specifications for different shapes and sizes, rather than just carelessly scaling them up or down, to make sure the clothes will look good in those different shapes and sizes. It's striking how often, despite the fact that most of these famous women are famously beautiful and have had someone helping them get ready for this engagement at which they have been photographed, the clothes don't actually look that good on them; and if that's the case, what chance do lesser mortals have?

I continue to find the fashion industry both fascinating and baffling.

the events - choir rehearsal for new cast; qeh performance

I was prompted back to the previous blogpost about The Events by the fact that last Saturday Morris Folk Choir took part in a large-choir version of The Events at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of a choral weekend on the South Bank. About 250 members of choirs which had been used last year were in it, including about ten of ours. I hadn't signed up for it, partly because I wasn't sure if I'd be free (as it turned out we spent that day in Beaconsfield, meeting Naomi and Clive at the Bekonscot model village) and partly because I was afraid it would be an an anti-climax after last year's great experience, just pushing it a step too far to recapture a moment which had passed. I thought about going along to see it, but I thought that I would just be regretful and jealous that I wasn't part of the choir. ATC did a Storify of tweets.

The choir had also been asked if we wanted to do a night in the Arts Depot leg of this year's tour of The Events, but we turned it down because we didn't have enough folk who could definitely say they could do it at the time we were asked about it, and also we were anticipating (rightly) being hard-pressed to learn our new repertoire for our own planned performances this year, especially since we were losing a rehearsal a month by getting more serious about committing to holding folk club each month.

I did get my own last hurrah with The Events, though, which I enjoyed very much. This year's tour has a new cast, Amanda Drew and Cliff Samuel. An email to the Morris members one Friday afternoon was a last-minute call for choir members to help with a rehearsal the next day - they'd been rehearsing for a fortnight, but not yet with a choir, and several of the folk they had lined up for their 'rehearsal with a choir' the next day had pulled out. I presume the email went to several choirs. Only Ileana and I were free to take it up from our choir (I had time to myself that day), and I think possibly only one other person from another choir came along, I think the others being associated with the Young Vic choir or actors they'd had helping them (in fact one of the latter was drafted out of the choir and onto the piano for the whole time until we did the run-through at the end by which time Magnus had arrived); there were about eight or ten of us, including Polina, who had just returned from Norway on an early flight that morning (and thanks to Twitter, I knew she'd had a rough journey, which felt stalkerish to know). It was good to see Polina again, and the stage manager Jess, who I spoke to for a while as I arrived a bit early, and Ramin the director was there also of course, hard at work.

(I remember reading an interview with Malcolm Macdowell in which he said that for a while after A Clockwork Orange he used to badmouth Stanley Kubrick because they'd got so close and had such a good relationship while they were filming it and then nothing, and he felt completely dropped and forgotten about. But after a few more filming experiences he realised that this was just how it worked, the creation of intense community and relationship for the duration of working on a film, then it was over and onto the next one. I guess that it's probably similar in the theatre, and it's testament to Polina and the team that they both have the commitment to and manage to create that community and relationship over and over again with so many choir groups, in a way that makes each choir feel special and valued. I know we did. But I'm always mindful that for choir members like myself it was probably a much more significant experience that it was for the professionals; they're on to the next thing, or even just the next performance, we're back to normal.)

We got there about midday and finished about five, with a break for lunch and then a short break before the run-through. We went slowly through all the choir scenes, before doing a full run-through. I did some of the FAQs and I Ams, of course (Jess said she'd been doing them by herself, essentially, up until then), and also in the run-through I did the speech of the person deputed to tell Claire we were stopping choir, which was nice. It was fascinating to be part of and see the rehearsal process, as they still worked on options of how to do things, and still not entirely on top of lines, with just a few days to go before their first performance. They all seemed to appreciate us being there. The two actors, of course, were different in their performances from Neve and Rudi, but I was sure they'd make a good job of it (and I told them so; I also spoke to Amanda about the conducting bit at the end, which she seemed a bit worried about but I said not to be). Amanda's Claire was warmer than Neve's, I'd say; less damaged yet, and might make more of a connection with audiences and be more moving as a result (or might not, everyone's different). Cliff's Boy was on the one hand lighter and more amusing, but on the other perhaps a greater sense of his unbalancedness.

I really enjoyed being part of that rehearsal, and felt privileged to be so. It was a good way to finish off my Events experience (if finish it is...).

Friday, 11 April 2014

the events - london 2013 run coverage and reviews

I've had a draft blog post for ages of this name (except I've had to stick '2013' in the name now). I had to go back through emails to see the links I'd found on the theme. I didn't realise I hadn't blogged any of them, but searching the blog I see that I had blogged lots of links to reviews of the Edinburgh run and elsewhere, so that's probably what I had in my mind.

First a couple of comments from a couple of things shared on the Morris emails after our first performance.
I wrote, 'One audience member (my wife, so possibly biased) told me that we were good, and, when asked, said that she couldn't tell whether our early entry into the Norwegian coffee song was accidental or deliberate and it sounded fine. On the other hand, an old lady I walked out of the theatre behind was asked by her friend what she thought and she said, 'boring, interrupted by songs', which I thought was hilariously wrongheaded. There's no accounting for people.'
Mark said, 'One young girl walked past me and Don then turned to tell us were we were excellent! I am sure that this an compliment for the choir and the play and Not of how good looking Don and I are. Or was it?'
Fiona said, 'Sarah overhead two women in the loos commenting that "the choir were very professional" and a boy behind her said that it was one of the best things he'd ever seen. And she didn't even notice our false coffee start.'

Some other reviews I noted or was pointed to, roughly in the order they came across my path, oldest first (as with the earlier reviews, most of the photos used were from our dress rehearsal; also as with earlier reviews, mostly very favourable; mostly of course not reviews from our performances). Daily Mail (Quentin said the choir was the best thing about it, which I don't think he meant as high praise, because he didn't like it). British Theatre Guide. Arts Desk. Financial Times. Time Out. Evening Standard. Singing Works (article by another choir re their involvement). Metro. Telegraph. Exeunt. Civilian Theatre. What's On Stage. Blouin Art Info. Partially Obstructed View blog (a review from one of Morris's performances, though says nothing in particular about the choir). Amanda Palmer. Article by Rudi on the ATC blog. South Bank London. Londonist. Matt Trueman. Observer (a short review from one of Morris's performances, nothing in particular about the choir, but has a comment from choir's Hannah, which I've just noticed). ATC blog item from one of the Dublin run choirs. ATC Storify of Tweets on The Events at the Young Vic. Young Vic blog item by Young Vic choir member.

Two blogs I found more recently which mention Morris. Toffs ('Trips for Older Females and Fellows') ('There is a different choir at every performance and on the night I attended, it was the Morris Folk Choir, who sang beautifully and spoke lines and generally participated in the action as well as, at times, becoming the audience listening to the story of Claire and the Boy'). A Night on the Town blog (the two bloggers went to the Morris matinee and weren't impressed by the play or the choir: 'It was also extremely confusing to understand why the Morris Folk Choir didn’t seem like they knew what they were doing for the whole production. Finally, at the end of the play, you learn that the choir who performs with the actors changes every week. There was no doubt that this was another recurring technique to signify how people in society are all the same, and how we are all in these world issues together. Though ironically, the choice to only explain this arrangement at the end of the performance made the choir’s unprepared nature distracting from these intended portrayals. ... come the end of the show, a member of the Morris Folk Choir could essentially sum it all up for me. He was quite literally falling asleep, and resembled an 8-year-old boy being forced to go to singing lessons by his parents. Something tells me he found it hard to keep up with what was going on as well.' and 'Similarly, although having a different choir join the cast for each performance is an interesting concept, it interferes with the fluidity of an already complex script. In addition to distracting us from the themes that are explored, it also fails to add a further layer of understanding or artistic value to the finished product, as the Morris Folk choir appeared so dazed and confused it was almost distracting.' Don't think I believe anyone was falling asleep, and we were probably among the most prepared choirs; funny what people see, but not impressed by their reviewing, which seems to have ground to a halt after a month.)

Finally, the Guardian end of year review which lists The Events as the No 1 theatre event of 2013.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

the opening lines from the songs on big country's the crossing

Apropos of nothing, these are, more or less, the opening lines from the songs on Big Country's first album, The Crossing, finishing with what may be my favourite first line of a song:

I've never seen you look like this without a reason

I wouldn’t want to go home on a night like this

All the rain came down on a cold new town as he carried you away

Now we play our final hand

I came from the hills with a tear in my eye

Who saw the fences falling?

We lay the night in anguish, snakes drawn out by the tide

A score of years this line has run

Between a father and a son

Night hangs on the city like a blanket on a cage

Monday, 7 April 2014

blood simple; inside llewyn davis

On Saturday 8 March, after the Daylight Music session mentioned in the previous post, I watched a Coen Brothers double bill in the afternoon at the Riverside Studios, of Blood Simple and Inside Llewyn Davis. My first double bill for years. (The womenfolk were at Crufts for the day.) I enjoyed it, both the films and the double bill experience. What I said in an MFC email, as a kind of ps to the Daylight Music email, was 'When the cats are away (at Crufts) the mice will play (at the Riverside Studios for a Coen Brothers afternoon double bill of Blood Simple (moral: hiring someone to kill your wife rarely ends well for anybody involved) and Inside Llewyn Davis (moral: impressive talent can come without either bankability or likeability)).'

The print of Blood Simple was an actual, scratchy old print, of a kind which I similarly haven't seen in the cinema for ages, which was good to see. Blood Simple was the Coen Brothers' first, Inside Llewyn Davis their latest, and they were both very good. Blood Simple was beautifully constructed and scripted. I guess the main drawback for Inside Llewyn Davis was that the main character, like most of the other musicians, wasn't very likeable, which inevitably in my view makes it less engaging; the music was very good, however, and you did get a feeling of accurate historical tone. I spent the start of the film wondering if the main actor was Nick from New Girl, having discarded the idea that he was the math whizz from Numbers, and the rest of it sure that it was. When I checked later I found that Nick from New Girl was Jake Johnson, Charlie from Numbers was David Krumholtz, and Llewyn Davis was Oscar Isaac.

daylight music: superman revenge squad; danni nicholls

At lunchtime on Saturday 8 March I went to Union Chapel for their free lunchtime music session, Daylight Music. I saw the second half of their first act, Superman Revenge Squad, and the first half of their second act, Danni Nicholls, and nothing of their third act.

I was prompted to go because Morris Folk Choir are performing at one of these sessions, in May. This is what I emailed to the MFC list at the time:

'I went to the free lunchtime music event at the Union Chapel today to see what it was like - I saw some of the first and second acts (and someone plays the church organ between acts).
'It reminded me of the free music nights I've been to at the Bedford in Balham (, where you get three or so acts, with fliers and CDs and a suite of online presences, generally in the pre-success part of a hoped-for career, and a professional set up from the venue side of things. (The Bedford is genuinely free; Union Chapel is a strongly encouraged donation of £3.50.)
'The audience was similarly respectful - in terms of listening and expressing appreciation, even though there was a lot of coming and going (and eating and drinking). It was bigger - there were over a hundred people there when I arrived, and the number increased. There was a range of ages, including children (there was a table with paper and crayons), but I'd say a significant majority were 20/30s, which seems to be the demographic they're going for, young Islingtonians easing themselves into their Saturday.
'I think it'll be a nice place to perform, and think we'll be received well. If today, and the Bedford in Balham, are reflective of the acts roster, we will be unusual in not having a CD to sell, and we may be a bit more fun and less earnest than a lot of others.'

In terms of the two acts I saw: Superman Revenge Squad was spoken word poetry (rather than rap) over music, which was okay and better in the flesh than the clips I'd listened to in advance online; Danni Nicholls (website not displaying properly for me, but at the moment featuring some good photos taken at this gig) was country/rockish singer-songwriter, accompanied by another guitarist, who had recently recorded an album in Nashville (I'm not sure why it gives people more cred to go to Nashville or somewhere else in America to record an album rather than doing it in London, but it must do because people keep doing it), and was accomplished but unremarkable. Here is the Daylight Music Facebook event page for the gig.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

the a-z of mrs p

On Saturday 22nd March, in the evening, we all went to the Southwark Playhouse, along with Margaret and Hei Mun (who had got it together) to see The A-Z of Mrs P, a modern musical about the self-described inventor of the A to Z of London (in fact this production was its premiere, though we weren't there on the first night).

The staging was between two banks of audience seats facing each other, for no apparent reason, which meant that for a lot of the time actors were facing away from you wherever you were sitting.

I thought it was okay, and probably liked it least of our group. Bethan I think would have bought the CD on the way out if there had been anyone at the desk. Probably partly I was influenced by knowing that the autobiographies and the recent biography based largely uncritically on those autobiographies (which I read, and had my doubts) on which the story is based are a very one-sided, if not largely fictional, version of events (Phyllis Pearsall's brother in particular has a very detailed website full of rebuttal). To be fair, the script does make allusions to this. Also I was expecting it to be lighter than it was; I'm sure it was sold as that, but there was a large emphasis on the family drama, especially the father-daughter relationship. But mainly I just didn't like the music very much; they were unremarkable songs, neither catchy in music or lyrics, very much in the common style of modern musical songs. The kind of songs which if you heard them on the radio you'd know they were from a modern musical when you heard them, except you wouldn't hear them on the radio (except on a specialist musical theatre songs show) because they're not good enough to stand up as songs in their own right (they seem to sacrifice that to moving the plot along in the song, so they feel very linear; I guess it takes more skill to do that without the sacrifice). Why should so many modern musical songs sound like that, like they're a genre of their own? Say what you like about Rice/Lloyd-Webber (I'll give you a minute), they wrote some proper songs. Or Randy Newman's songs for cartoons, standalone but plot/character development in filmic context.

Still, everyone else enjoyed it; I was worried the younger generation might have been bored, but it wasn't the case (of course even it that were the case it wouldn't be admitted, in case it might reduce the likelihood of further late nights out at grown-up theatre, which is fair enough). Mrs P is played by Isy Suttie, who I think is the only well-known cast member (though others did look familiar, though could be types) - most familiar as comedian with comic songs, biog indicates drama training.

(Also in the audience we spotted Haydn Gwynne. Made a pair of niche actor spots when as the three of us left Zizzi's the following Friday we saw Clive Russell.)

Some reviews from the first couple of pages of results (several lesser- or never-linked sites here). The Southwark Playhouse page. Telegraph (middling to poor, commenters think worse). Evening Standard. Guardian (third out of three that says something like 'loses its way'. 'The chief pleasure lies in the music and lyrics of Gwyneth Herbert who claims never to have seen a staged musical before being commissioned to write this one.' - obviously went on a crash course and copied what she saw, I'd say). That Guardian review also links to this article by Isy Suttie on playing the part. What's On Stage (reviews lining up with me so far, mostly without taking issue with the truth of the story). The Arts Desk. The Stage. The Public Reviews. British Theatre Guide. Musical Theatre Review. Rage Off Stage blog (new to me, second 'loses its way' in a row, very unimpressed, but their blog title and biog sets up the reader to expect that they're going to be criticising everything they blog about, I don't know if that's the case). Times (before it fades behind the paywall you can see it's getting 4 out of 5 stars, which makes it the best reputable review so far listed I think). Total Tat blog. West End Frame blog. Helen Babbs blog (review for Londonist). Classical Source. The Upcoming online magazine (nasty ad-filled design. Girl Outside blog. Youth Music Theatre (most of these last run, apart from Times, are new to me). Comparisons with Sondheim were regular, so perhaps he's to blame for what I call the 'modern musical style'?

Friday, 4 April 2014

brothers in law

On Tuesday I finished a nice old orange Penguin edition of Brothers In Law by Henry Cecil (had the advantage of fitting easily into my pocket for travelling, a much-overlooked factor by modern publishers who seem to love big, thick editions). I enjoyed it, but if I wanted to read more like it again I'd read more Rumpole stories rather than more Henry Cecil; clearly a forerunner, tales of court and chambers told by one who knows, but a bit more romantic comedy.